How Good Do You Have to Be to Have a Successful Career?

There is, undoubtedly, a certain standard of excellence that must be upheld. A command of the mechanics of playing one’s instrument. A deep and nuanced understanding of the vocabulary, grammar, and language of music. An appreciation of the point of it all.

But in a day and age in which the level of technical musicianship is higher than it’s ever been, what if we are reaching a point of diminishing returns? After all, how much more is a listener willing to pay for a performance that is 2.4% better in tune, has 3.6% fewer botched notes and 1.9% cleaner sound?

I think on some level we all know, that whatever our instrument, whatever our profession, technical excellence is a necessary but insufficient pre-condition for success.

The key to becoming legendary

You know how sometimes you hear about someone who has done something amazing, and suddenly you think to yourself, “Crap, look at what this person is doing. Why am I sitting on the couch in my sweats eating leftover chinese watching Netflix?”

That happened to me the other day (only sans sweats, chinese, and Netflix) as I read about the guys behind the show The Buried Life.

For those who have never heard of this show, it’s a show about four young guys who travel around the country crossing items off their list of things to do before they die, while helping others cross something off their list as well.

To this point, they’ve crashed a party at the Playboy mansion, been on Oprah, made a TV show, written a book, played basketball with President Obama, and crossed seventy-some other items off their list.

When one considers the audacity and persistence necessary to make these ideas a reality, it served as a reminder of how safe we play it (myself included) on a day to day basis.

Boldness and audacity

What if success comes not to those who wait (and practice, and wait, and practice, and wait some more), but those who practice, go do some bold audacious stuff, regroup and practice, and do some more crazy stuff, regroup and practice some more, and go off again to change the world?

There are already plenty of examples in the arts of people who have made a contribution and a difference in the world not by being perceived as the best at what they do, but by being perceived as the only ones who do what they do (to loosely quote Jerry Garcia).

The Kronos Quartet, for instance.

(Incidentally, here is some little-seen video of violinist David Harrington on the quartet’s early days, on getting noticed, and on the problems of getting people to show up.)

Brooklyn Rider is another group which seems to know what it believes in, what it wants, and recently raised an impressive $50,565 on Kickstarter.

ICE has made it a point to avoid becoming a traditional orchestra. Seems to be working, as they have grown from a budget of $500 to something in the neighborhood of $1,000,000.

Former American String Quartet cellist-turned-tech-entrepreneur Margo Drakos, is changing the world, and leading a movement to leverage technology in service of the arts.

Maximizing use of time

After all, once you are among the top several percent in your field, how can you differentiate yourself from all the others in such a crowded space? Assuming two people of roughly equal ability and desire, the only way to stand out in a direct comparison is to either practice more, or practice more efficiently – and given the limits of time and energy, how much can one person really pull away from the other?

The controversial, but one-of-a-kind Tim Ferriss says:

“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming… The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.”

Perhaps (again, assuming a requisite level of excellence has been reached), one’s time can be maximized by finding something that one believes deeply in. Some big, juicy, audacious idea, that once you’ve gotten a glimpse of it in your head, you can’t imagine a world without it. Something, that becomes so much a part of your voice, your artistic or professional identity, and who you are, that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it out into the world where it can make a difference. As Seth Godin says, we need you to lead us:

Take Action

Cliche as it sounds, have you compiled your list of 100 things to do before you die? What would happen if you narrowed this list down to a top 3, and then began doing whatever it took to cross one of them off your list?

Read about the guys behind The Buried Life, and their formula for success if you haven’t already.

Check out The Buried Life. Really. And remember that while it’s now a TV show with all that that implies, it began as an experiment to see how much truth there might be to the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Take stock and ask yourself what you might unwittingly be shying away from. Are there any stones that have been left unturned? Have you avoided telling certain people about your recital because you’re afraid of what they may think? Are you procrastinating on producing a CD of the piano trios you composed? Have you written the book that you feel is inside of you? Have you put plans for a 3-day festival of music composed or influenced by holocaust survivors on the back burner because of the fear of fundraising and meeting with potential donors?

Above all, write something down, and turn it into a plan of action. Without action, nothing changes.

The one-sentence summary

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”  ~Steven Pressfield (from The War of Art)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


16 Responses

  1. I know many people who have had career success in music without having much in the way of “artistry,” and people who are truly great who remain unknown to most people. Being really good (at anything) doesn’t automatically come with the reward of having it recognized, because most people really cannot tell the very good from the adequate, particularly when it comes to music. The appreciation of excellence is often reserved for listeners who have invested a considerable amount of time and energy into separating the good from the great (and, yes, the great is indeed the enemy of the good).

    The people you mention in this post are good at getting themselves known. Or at least they seem to be good at it. I have a great deal of respect for people who put the goal of making music (writing it and/or playing it) as well as he or she feels it can be made as the real measure of success. Fame is fleeting, money is quickly spent, but music (when it is written down or recorded and offered to people who care about it) can last forever.

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Thanks for the note! Indeed, excellence is always in short supply, and I hope I haven’t implied any support for the celebration of mediocrity. At least, that’s not what I intended to convey.

      Hopefully the main takeaway from the guys behind The Buried Life is (a) that we are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and (b) to quote Steve Jobs, “real artists ship”.

      To explain, here’s an excerpt from the book Insanely Great, by Steven Levy:

      “Jobs’s speeches were punctuated by slogans. Perhaps the most telling epigram of all was a three-word koan that Jobs scrawled on an easel in January 1983, when the project [the release of the first Mac] was months overdue. REAL ARTISTS SHIP. It was an awesome encapsulation of the ground rules in the age of technological expression. The term “starving artist” was now an oxymoron. One’s creation, quite simply, did not exist as art if it was not out there, available for consumption, doing well. Was [Douglas] Engelbart an artist? A prima donna–he didn’t ship. What were the wizards of PARC? Haughty aristocrats–they didn’t ship. The final step of an artist–the single validating act–was geting his or her work into boxes, at which point the marketing guys take over. Once you get the computers into people’s homes, you have penetrated their minds. At that point all the clever design decisions you made, all the twists and turns of the interface, the subtle dance of mode and modeless, the menu bars and trash cans and mouse buttons and everything else inside and outside your creation, becomes part of people’s lives, transforms their working habits, permeates their approach to their labor, and ultimately, their lives.

      But to do that, to make a difference in the world and a dent in the universe, you had to ship. You had to ship. You had to ship.
      Real artists ship.”

      I’ve come across many folks who have had much to offer the world, but have shied away from doing what it takes (which is considerable in this day and age) to get their work out there and ensure the world knows they exist.

      I probably shouldn’t quote Spiderman, but the saying “With great power comes great responsibilty” seems fitting. If we have something of value to offer the world, whether it is inspiration, a transcendent experience, or a better way of peeling a banana, we owe it to humanity to get it out there where it can make a difference in someone’s life.

      Of course, our brain will come up with many reasons for us to sit on the sidelines rather than putting our deepest and most cherished values out on a limb in front of a world that gives no gurantee of acceptance or rejection, but perhaps that’s part of what it means to be an artist.

      In fact, if we are doing it right, polarization is probably inevitable. Some will love us, and others will not get us at all – and might even actively reject us. I’m not up on my art/music history, but I seem to recall there being many stories of great artists and composers whose works were “ahead of their time” as they say, and soundly rejected by critics and the general public.

      I know there is that saying about the world beating a path to your door if you invent a better mousetrap, but I’m not sure how often that actually happens. As I understand it, sliced bread existed for 15 years, and was a complete failure until Wonder came along and found a way to spread the idea and forevermore improve the life of every parent who has to pack sandwiches for their kid’s lunch.

      For better or worse, it appears that if we have a vision for how the world can be a better place, and sincerely believe in this vision (not for our ego or bank account’s sake), we must take it upon ourselves to make sure our voice, our reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, our concept of the Goldberg Variations, our grand idea of what a concert experience ought to be like is experienced by people whose lives might be changed for the better by it. Otherwise, sadly, the world may never know what it missed.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute to the blog!

      1. This shipping analogy makes sense in an environment where there are people who would be willing to “buy” if the product were available. Some people, particularly in academic environments, where accomplishment is based on perceived importance rather than on the quality on a person’s work, experience “success” differently. Talent and ability is often seen as a threat to the status quo. Envy runs deep, and the waters are vast and filled with unseen dangers. One answer to this problem would be to move to a place where the “marketplace” is more lively, but given the lay of the land (and the “shipping costs” associated with changing jobs and moving to a less affordable place), that is not always a possibility.

        Me? I constantly take risks, try my damnedest to “deliver,” but I think I will still be waiting for a long time for my “ship to come in,” and I really don’t believe it actually will. So I content myself with the act of doing for doing’s sake. It keeps me relatively sane, and keeps me from “jumping ship.”

      2. As I’m understanding it, the idea that “real artists ship” is a difficult one for me to reconcile with (for a start) the history of art, music, literature etc – there are too many examples to name of great works that were not “shipped” during their creators’ lifetimes. Does that mean those creators were not “real artists”? Surely the artistry lies in the creative act, not the financial transaction. I’m not willing to accept a definition of an artist as someone who is able to sell their work, or to measure the realness of their art by consumer numbers.

        This is also about how we choose to define what getting our work “out there” means: does it mean selling CDs, playing well-known venues, getting good reviews in national papers? Is it about audience numbers? Is it about income? Are those the definitions of a “successful career” in music? What if you play to an un-paying audience in a church hall in a middle-of-nowhere village, and one of those people is moved by your performance? Does that count as putting your work “out there”? Or if you have one student whose lesson with you is the highlight of their week during high school, and who continues to enjoy playing as an amateur throughout their adult life? As Elaine says, many excellent musicians have careers that don’t make headlines, while mediocre musicians who happen to be good at marketing themselves have their names in lights. Conventional markers of “success” are always worth debating.

        1. Hi Nina,

          Apologies for the odd means of contacting you but I am the daughter of Walija Chew (née Kani) who I believe taught you the cello years ago. I am organising a 60th Birthday Party for her and her old pupils in Surrey, UK for April 2018. If you are interested, would you be able to email me at and I will let you know the full details?

  2. Excellent article. Seeing you mention my friend Margo Drakos and her amazing leadership and transition from musician to tech entrepreneur, I hope you don’t mind if I toot my own horn a bit with two projects, both of which show cools ways to change the world.

    I’m a Curtis-trained classical pianist, and even though I enjoyed a wonderful career as a collaborative pianist and a faculty/administrative position at Curtis, I started to see that it would eventually become a dead end. I always had a fascination with finding ways to merge technology with art, but in a conservative environment such as Curtis’, that just made me stick out like a sore thumb.

    My first project started 11 years ago. I wanted to try to use computers (Tablet PCs back then) to completely replace my paper music library. That led me to develop programmable pedals for “turning” the digital pages so that I could keep my hands on the piano and not have to worry about that age-old distraction. Four years ago, I started a company to develop my own brand of page turning pedals, and with the advent of tablets like the iPad, our company has taken off to the point where I’m able to resign from Curtis and now work full time on making this dream come true! The company is called AirTurn, and you can read about our BT-105 wireless hands-free page turner for the iPad at

    The AirTurn is now being used by leading musicians around the world, such as pianist Sam Haywood (who recently performed with Joshua Bell at Carnegie Hall and talked about his use of an iPad and the AirTurn at a TEDx conference), violinist Ray Chen (who won the 2009 Queen Elisabeth International Competition using an AirTurn), and progressive rock keyboardist Jordan Rudess from the group Dream Theater.

    The second project actually started as a marketing experiment for AirTurn. I thought it would be great to offer video lessons for free to demonstrate how I use computers to read and teach music, and the advantages that digital technologies have over traditional paper methods. The result was “Piano from Scratch”, a series that teaches absolute beginners who have never read music or played the piano before how to play “Clair de lune” by Claude Debussy. At first, the idea was completely panned by music teachers on a popular piano forum, saying that it would be impossible for beginners to play such a masterpiece without at least 5 years of foundational training. One week after posting the lessons, a 17 year old from Sweden posted a video demonstrating his own wonderful performance of the piece, having never read music or played the piano before!

    At present, the introductory video has been viewed over 120,000 times, and I recently learned that Jim Parsons, the Emmy-award winning actor portraying “Sheldon” in the hit comedy series “The Big Bang Theory”, has been following my “Clair de lune from Scratch” series to learn how to play after an 18 year absence from piano lessons. But the most rewarding feedback has been from regular folks around the world discovering the joy of making music for the first time in their lives, and realizing that they have the ability to do something beautiful with patience and a little bit of help. It’s fascinating to consider how one hour of time invested in this type of instruction can reap multiple thousands of hours of learning and countless results in return, regardless of location or schedule. I believe this represents a great model for re-energizing music education worldwide.

    You can watch the “Clair de lune” video lessons for free at

    I believe most classical musicians have 2 out of 4 components necessary for exponential success: talent and the ability to work hard. The remaining components – the abilities to think outside the box and to dream really, really big dreams – tend to get suffocated in the traditional training methods that musicians think are required for their success. It’s ironic how we celebrate the “out of the box” thinking of the iconic masters of the past like Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ives, and the like, but we kill that desire to “think different” when it comes to preparing for that audition, performance, or career choice.

    Thanks again for a terrific, thought-provoking article!

    1. Hi Hugh,

      I must confess that I stumbled across your blog once upon a time, so this definitely rings a bell. But it seems like things have really picked up; I’m glad to hear these initiatives are going so well!

      And how cool for your product to get a mention in Engadget and Wired, too! That’s pretty awesome.

  3. Is that really true? Do you really honestly measure the worth of a life well spent by whether or not you spent it crashing a Playboy mansion ‘party’? That’s really quite sad, y’know. I mean, considering, evolutionarily speaking, you are by definition the pinacle of an unimaginably long line of winners at Life, and there have been, history tells us, a great and soberingly many who have not, and you want to spend it crashing a bogus party trying to get close to a man who sells fantasies? Ewwww …

    I’d rather spend it changing the world in some more meaningful way than the glorification of empty lives. For example, and not to say I’d be even a sliver as great, I’d rather spend my days reaching for those last few ignored and maligned years of Ludwig van Beethoven who knew, better than anyone contemporary to him, what the world actually NEEDED to hear. Humanity was elevated by such a life, the planet itself was improved by such a life. But what will history say of the boys who bullied their way on to a TV show just so they could check it off some list? That’s beyond sad.

  4. I think the big problem behind all of this is rejection.

    We’re led to believe we’re only great when somebody else tells us we are. That’s why they buy our music, book us for gigs, extend recording contracts, give us jobs, etc.

    The message tends to be “if you are great, wouldn’t everybody else already know that?” And if you haven’t been hired, maybe it’s because you’re no good.

    A lot of great people are underrated. Most of all, I get great delight when some person who apparently has made it like a Steve Jobs rejects an up-and-comer. Then I rejoice for the person(s) who discovered them. (Possible source of inspiration? Robert Sternberg’s works of creativity and his stock market parallel of “buy low / sell high.”)

  5. This is a fascinating discussion. My own life “suffered” a derailment some 24 months ago with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. My cello has sat in the corner for the last few months, untouched, due to the exhaustion and fatigue of treatment. I have questioned my life purpose for the last 18 months, as I have had so little energy to do anything at all, other than sit, meditate, pray, read, and contemplate.

    The reason the word “suffered” has quotation marks around it is because I have had the opportunity to question my impact on the world, have had my contributions validated by many, and, suddenly, I am now doing much better and am ready to — slowly, very slowly — decide what I want to do with the rest of my life. While I dedicated myself to public middle school orchestra, an important and valuable vocation sadly dissed by my performing colleagues, I simply no longer have the kind of energy or drive to do that gig justice.

    Recently, I decided that I have three areas where my unique gifts have meaning: (1) to offer hope to those who are living daily with chronic and serious disease by continuing to live a full and meaningful life; (2) using music for healing (please note that I did not say “curing”) by performing the service of playing music at the bedsides of those who are seriously ill and dying; (3) helping people who are devoting their lives to teaching to become the best teachers they can be by offering the benefit of my experience through writing and presenting meaningful work.

    I don’t need to be famous, something that many of us in the music world consider to be the only worthwhile public validation. I am still a musician and need to perform live music in venues where it is needed. So long as the bills are paid, how much does any of us really need? And, as far as Steve Jobs is concerned, I agree with Elaine; just because you don’t ship, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not an artist. If you do get around to shipping, though, at least your art is out there in whatever medium it happens to be.

  6. I applaud Constance; and so sorry the lesson had to be learned by so hard a teacher. And so sorry too for those dissing colleagues, so sad to see such, especially from musicians who are supposedly trained to be empathic, but it just goes to show, it’s no guarantee of success.

    For those with access to it by any means, I highly recommend the brilliant old Japanese Anime film “Goshu The Cellist” wherein Goshu, a struggling errant cellist, is taught some hard lessons about the true value and the true technique of playing music … by a bird, a racoon, a cat and a deathly ill baby mouse.

  7. I am a cellist. Two and a half years ago, that was not the case. Most of my life has been spent with my 5 siblings and mother(who was a single mother for11 years) trying to survive, many times we were nearly homeless, but because the kindness of others, and the grace of God, we always pulled through. Two and a half years ago, I met my currant cello teacher, who was just 13 at the time. I wanted to play, my heart wanted to play, but everything around me said it was not possible. I was 16… What could I do with that?
    But I won’t let that stop me, I want to tell a story, with my heart, and my music and my life. I refuse to give up, if a person has something to offer society then nothing should stop them, right?! You don’t wait on opprotunity, you make it.

  8. To put things from a marketer perspective, there are two aspects of success and making a living – Product and Sales & Marketing.

    I think most artists shy away from the latter and that’s why there is so much undiscovered and non-developed talent.

    There is this misconception that sales is some awful, demonic, slithery thing that artists and musicians are above but that’s not true. Some may not enjoy it as much but it’s equally essential.

    Plus marketing includes the relationships you build with others. I think success lies in overcoming the fear that you might have in building robust relationships with other musicians, promoters, enthusiasts, etc.

    It’s always been my fear to put myself out there and collaborate because I thought that I’m not good enough to make it. I didn’t have a music education background and I didn’t start to really take music seriously until a few years ago and I’m already 26.

    The truth is that success never only depending on my raw learned ability (which I still work on every day), but on my willingness to constantly improve, learn, and grow.

    I do notice that I keep getting better at my instrument, but the real challenge is to get myself out there into the world and show them what I’ve got.

    Now that’s what I’d call going for it.

    At this point I’ll never catch up technically to thousands, may be millions of other guitarists, but I honestly find myself caring less and less.

    The best thing of all is that I’m happy with that.

  9. It is not easy to achieve a good career and you should really work on it. I used to sleep 6 hours a day and work at least 14 hours day just to finish all deadlines and hopefully do go impression on my work.

  10. This is a really great piece and I really liked reading everyone’s comments on it, too. I was thinking about this question for the past few years; I performed a lot in orchestra throughout school and college, but it was always an extracurricular. I performed a lot and also had the privilege of taking lessons (I only say it is a privilege because I know is still not an option for many people in the world). Then after college I started wondering what the purpose of my music was (I majored in philosophy, hence the constant questioning). But this article and everyone’s comments really gave me a deeper perspective. Yes it is important to keep improving and practicing, but at what point does it become too much? I can practice two hours a day, and I am trying to maintain that goal, but unless I learn how to communicate with my audience, learn how to tell a story, it doesn’t matter how much I practice, I will still feel like an empty shell because all I was focused on was myself and how I played. Technicality is key, but it should serve a purpose. And I agree that even if you’re not constantly putting yourself out there, you can still produce beautiful art. I am currently not performing as much as I did in school but I still love playing music; I’m just at a place where I am figuring out what the purpose of having a music career is and what I personally want it to look like.

    I am passionate about fighting climate change and other social injustices, and somehow, I don’t know how, I want to integrate my social justice learning with my music. I mean, understand technicality is to some extent important because you want to sound good and do your best, and there’s nothing wrong with practicing in solitude, but with the current state of the arts and the struggles with orchestras and unions, I think it’s important to also get out of the practice room sometimes and use music to address what’s going on in society. While working some minimum wage jobs while auditioning for orchestras and other music opportunities, I have read more about economic topics, such as the job market, service industry employee strikes, and the housing market. I didn’t really read anything about the arts in these pieces, so somehow I want to integrate music and other forms of expression to address class issues, and also other issues such as environmental injustice in Indigenous communities. I also want my music career to be environmentally sustainable. I was really encouraged though, Noa, to read about the ensembles who did their thing because they loved it (such as Kronos and Brooklyn Rider).

    I want to collab with Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Alisa Weilerstein, Yo’Yo Ma and other musicians, naive as it may sound to some, because I love these people and seeing their passion makes me want to play with them. And yes, these things may require me to be a good musician (and save up some money haha), but (and correct me if I’m wrong) at the end of the day, people are coming to hear music, not exactly write critiques. I also think as artists we need to know when to call it a day sometimes. Even when auditioning for those orchestras, I didn’t educate myself on the proper self-care techniques and ended up burning out, so I haven’t auditioned in a little over a year. At the end of the day, whether you’re a DJ, a violinist, a soul singer, or a funk master (talking about Dear George Clinton, aka Parliament) you are a human being and need to go about your day. Yesterday at my cello recital, I messed up while playing Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, but I had to keep going because I was playing for people. After the concert I wasn’t too happy with my performance and knew I could have done better, but it was too late to mope about it. And I can always play it again, there’s no rule book that says you can’t play the same music twice. If I ever audition for another orchestra, though, I want to know why I’m doing it in the first place. Having a clear purpose for my music has helped me practice more deliberately.

    Thank you again for this piece and for Bulletproof Musician. And thank you everyone for your insights.

    1. Interesting…I’m sure there’s got to be a unique way to combine music with social justice work – there’s often a way to combine seemingly disparate interests into something organic that makes sense when you look back at it in hindsight. You might find cellist-turned-entrepreneur Margo Drakos’s career path to be of some interest in this regard:

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